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Bringing Affordable Robotics To Big Agriculture 196

kkleiner writes "Boston-based Harvest Automation has made good on its mission to bring robots into the world of agriculture by introducing Harvey, a bot tasked with the rather modest job of moving plants around in nurseries and greenhouses because people aren't keen on doing the laborious work. At a price point of $30k each, two bots would cost the same as three unskilled human laborers who earn about $20k annually not to mention medical bills due to injury. Harvey's job may not be flashy, but considering the potted plant industry is valued at $50 billion, the bot's little impact could translate into significant money."
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Bringing Affordable Robotics To Big Agriculture

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  • Impressive. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @08:13PM (#44752153) Homepage Journal

    Living in the middle of Illinois there's a lot of farming news and farm shows around here, and you see an awful ot of impressive tech, and even science. They have self-driving combines and harvesters that use GPS, cell phone apps very useful to them (some control machinery), chemical testing of the spoil and plants available... you have to know a lot to farm these days.

    I know someone's going to complain "BUT JOBS!!!" but the jobs the tech in TFA are jobs are jobs only the most desperate want. Agriculture has been constantly replacing jobs with technology for centuries. It takes fewer and fewr to feed more and more.

    Someone's going to bring up GM, GM isn't used much around here, most seed is hybrid -- but the biochemists and agronomists have DNA study of the plants they breed.

    There's a TV show that comes on here on Sunday morning at 5:30 AM and it's the only OTA show that's not an infomercial, and It's pretty interesting. Here's their website. [] I'm not a farmer but it is pretty interesting.

    I wouldn't consider potted plants "Big Agriculture." That's soybeans, corn, and wheat.

  • Re:Hidden cost (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @09:08PM (#44752463)

    This is the road we are going down.It's easy to imagine a time when the only things of value are land and energy (and the land and energy required to make something). A breakthrough in those areas (space colonization, cheap fusion power) and nothing will be of value. My desktop 3-D printer/assembler can make be a garage sized 3-D printer/assemblerr, which in turn can assemble me a new Ferrari. It can also disassemble my old Ferrari for raw materials then disassemble itself to save space. Will we get there? Unknown, but fortunately for us science fiction writers have anticipated this for a long time and proposed some interesting and probably workable solutions.

    My personal favorite is everyone gets a stipend like Native American tribes or people from Alaska. A low but above poverty amount, say 30K a year. To be fair everyone gets it. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, me. People can work if they want to. Jobs would be scarce and desirable no matter how bad. If 40 or even 80% of the population is unemployed, who cares? We would have to get past class warfare, because anyone who had a truly needed job would be pretty valuable and probably make a lot of money, but again, who cares if you can print a Ferrari or surfboard or whatever else you want practically for free.

  • Blueberry robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @09:14PM (#44752511)
    I was recently picking blueberries at a u-pick. This is easily the best year I have ever seen. Literally the bushes were breaking under the weight of the blueberries. You could eat the berries off the bushes like corn on the cob. The problem is that most berry areas are having a similar banner year along with there being a huge amount of berries planted. All this has resulted in a price crash. This crash has made it borderline uneconomic to harvest the berries. But if you had a robotic harvester this changes the pricing quite a bit. Once you have purchased the machine the price to run it should be very low and the amortized costs are there regardless if you run the machine or not. Thus you can harvest the berries even in banner years. Another option is to also plant excessive crops of different types and then focus your harvesting on the most profitable crops in any given year.

    It is my firm belief that robotic agriculture will change the entirety of how we produce food. A few simple examples of changes that few people discuss would be the terrain that is used for harvesting. Two of the key advantages of flat land for grains is that the crop will develop consistently across large areas and thus when harvested be of a predictable quality when turned into bread and whatnot. The other is that it is far easier to build the massive harvesting machines if they don't have to contend with any variations in the terrain. The goal of the massive machines is to vastly increase the ability of a single human to do a huge amount of work.

    But with robotic planting, tending, and harvesting you don't need to "multiply" the work of a single human. Thus the robots can be fairly small. Also the robots can adjust the feeding of the plants so to grow a fairly consistent crop in inconsistent terrain. Then in the end when it comes time to harvest. The robot can methodically harvest at the perfect moment for any given plant (repeatedly bypassing those not ready) plus it can methodically sort even down the single grain.

    Another advantage is where the cost of the entire cycle of agriculture can be so low that you could robotically convert marginal land into low producing land and still produce food at a very low cost. The return on quality land would be higher but by being able to cheaply bring marginal land into production it will form a scenario of relentless competition thus holding down prices. Plus once again due to the nature of robot economics once marginal land was in production the cost of continued production would be very low. This could also be carefully factored into the logistics calculations where a less efficient production is competitive where it might reduce some other cost such as shipping.

    This last factor might result in it being cheaper to produce greenhouses and then produce goods year-round much closer to the point of consumption rather than shipping them half way around the world.

    Also robotics can be used inefficient ways such as massively processing marginal land making it quite productive. Normally this is a time eating process that is not worth it. But if you can leave some robots cooking away in a forest for a few years and come back to find nutrient rich terra pretta then again the economics change.

    What I can't foresee is which direction agriculture will take. I have a feeling it will be mega massive monster farming companies with very few employees that depopulate the rural farm communities. But at the same time the low barriers to entry might mean that many people will jump in the moment a competitive opportunity is perceived. Personally where food is such a fundamental part of living (right there after clean water) that I don't believe that any small group of companies should be allowed to concentrate ownership of any nation's food production. If they get it wrong, or play evil games, massive numbers of people could suffer.

    One prediction that I will solidly make is that there will be very very very very few people employed in agriculture in 20-50 years.
  • Re: Hidden cost (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kwbauer ( 1677400 ) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @10:10PM (#44752825)

    The largest in the US paid anywhere between 25% and 50% of their revenue, but keep spouting that nonsense that anything less than 100% is not their fare share.

  • Re:Impressive. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by s.petry ( 762400 ) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @10:14PM (#44752841)

    Interesting points, and I agree with most of your perspective. What I take issue with in TFA is this statement. because people aren't keen on doing the laborious work. It reeks as badly as "These are jobs American's won't do" that require us to overlook illegal immigrants.

    Your explanation, I accept that certain things can be automated like soil testing. To claim "people don't want to work" I say is an appeal to emotion argument that nobody should fall for (yet sadly many do). People do want to work assuming that they get paid fairly for the work being done.

  • Re:Impressive. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @10:45PM (#44753011) Homepage

    To claim "people don't want to work" I say is an appeal to emotion argument that nobody should fall for (yet sadly many do). People do want to work assuming that they get paid fairly for the work being done.

    Try getting the playstaion generation to go outdoors and move plant pots around all day. You'll soon be browsing robot catalogs...

  • Re:Impressive. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by caseih ( 160668 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @01:49AM (#44753821)

    I and my brothers farm a "big agriculture" farm of about 3000 acres. We're smack dab in the middle of harvest, with about 1000 acres to go. And we have no employees other than ourselves. Just the four of us (family farm). We're heavily mechanized. three of us run the harvest usually. Two on the combines, one on the trucks. We can knock down a 130 acre field in about 8 or 9 hours.

    And all this barely is enough income to fund the farm (capital costs can be huge!), and pay for 4 families.

    Other farms that grow other more labor-intensive (and more lucrative) crops do hire a lot of unskilled labor, but we're running into an interesting problem. Modern farm machinery requires interaction with a computer screen right there in the machine. As well a good working knowledge of math is required as ratios and calculations are needed all the time when setting machines, figuring out how much product is needed, etc. But many of the unskilled laborers that can be hired lack basic reading and writing skills.

    Anyway, I'd love a swarm of little robots to craw along the soil between the rows of plants and pick weeds. Eliminating herbicide use would be huge! And if we could somehow mechanically zap harmful insects but leave the beneficial ones alone, that'd also be wonderful. That'd still leave me with having to fight fungal infections, but it'd be a great start.

  • by blackest_k ( 761565 ) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @03:10AM (#44754023) Homepage Journal

    I was shown a pretty impressive set up in a huge greenhouse set up in south lincolnshire which produced pots of herbs.
    The sowing of pots was largely automated and there were rails running down the length of the greenhouse with metal trays across the rails.

    Essentially the rails were loaded at one end and robots would lift the trays and move them along the rails as the herbs grew. watering was automated so it was long production lines the length of the green house and the robots took care of the plants and the far end of the line the pots were taken off and shipped to supermarkets using minimal manual labour.

It's fabulous! We haven't seen anything like it in the last half an hour! -- Macy's